Always open to encounters and suggestions: The industrial designer Peter Raacke experienced and helped shape design history in Germany. Now he passed away in Berlin at the age of 93.
By Thomas Wagner.
It is January 1968. As reported by the news magazine Der Spiegel, a German grabbed a knife in the studio of the New York television company NBC. In front of the camera, says the report with the headline “Stable Otto”, “the Hanau designer Peter Raacke, 39, cut, bent and folded ‘the first really modern piece of furniture’: after five minutes of work, the viewers recognised a chair on the screen”. This chair, Raacke explained, is made of corrugated cardboard. It “can withstand one and a half tonnes of pressure and lasts two years, after that, you throw it away”. In the time of the student revolt, when many old customs were cut off, Peter Raacke propagated completely new and less bourgeois ideas of living with his cheap, light and recyclable disposable furniture. “Furniture,” he said, “is not meant to be owned, but to be consumed.” In the last quarter, the designer had received 20,000 orders for the, according to Spiegel, “shapely but not too comfortable cardboard Ottoes”, “at unit prices between eight and 84 marks”. Ellen Raacke, Peter Raacke’s first wife, had taken over the distribution, because production was only possible if the designer undertook to buy 10,000 pieces.
Maintaining a balance between use and form
You could say Peter Raacke, born in Hanau in 1928, was a perky balance artist. In everything he has designed during his long and successful career, he has tried to maintain a balance – between use and form, utility and beauty. Perhaps also between the joy of experimentation and the will to form, avant-garde and tradition. And as is usual with people who walk a fine line with firm courage and playfully hold themselves upright between the extremes instead of subordinating themselves to a harsh either-or, his work as an industrial designer also leaned sometimes more to one side, sometimes more to the other. To remain supple and not fall off.
At the same time, Peter Raacke never understood the work of designing as an apolitical activity. Whatever had to be designed, it had to be given a socially and politically meaningful perspective. And because the balance can only be maintained by being flexible, many of Raacke’s designs were unconventional – and became famous and design classics precisely because of this. Starting with the stainless steel cutlery “mono-a” from 1959, which is still inseparably linked with Raacke’s name, to the various cardboard furniture from 1968, to the coloured plastic toolbox for the company Ruddies Burgmöbel from 1966 and the rattan furniture from 1974.
Raacke has experienced and helped shape design history in Germany
Peter Raacke, who always reacted cheerfully, openly and alertly to encounters and suggestions, experienced and helped shape the history of design in Germany. The fact that he was trained as a goldsmith and enameller trained his sense for material and for fine detail. Equipped with knowledge imparted to him by Karl Lang and August Bock, the teacher of Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Christian Dell, at the Hanau Drawing Academy, but also by Walter Lochmüller in Schwäbisch Gmünd and Elisabeth Treskow in Cologne, he moved into his flat and studio in Darmstadt in the early 1950s – not just anywhere, but in the Hochzeitsturm on Mathildenhöhe. That he was in the right place at the right time became apparent at the legendary “Darmstadt Talks”. Here Raacke met Otto Bartning, Theodor Heuss, Theodor W. Adorno and many others who were thinking about questions of man, technology and space. The socio-political dimension of design always remained important to Raacke. Even when he taught at the Werkkunstschule Saarbrücken in the early 1950s, at the Staatliche Werkkunstschule Kassel in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and at the HfG Ulm from 1963 to 1967. Raacke was a co-founder of the Werkbund Saar and the Association of German Industrial Designers (VDID). From 1968 to 1993, he taught industrial design at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg for 25 years and continued to work in his office raacke design in Berlin-Zehlendorf.
There was also no shortage of tributes and reviews: in 2003, he was honoured with the exhibition “50 Years of Peter Raacke Design” at the German Museum of Technology in Berlin; this was followed in 2004 by the exhibition “50 Years of Peter Raacke Design – Designing for Use” at the Goldschmiedehaus Hanau, and in 2005 by the retrospective “Peter Raacke – Designing for Use” at the The Deutsches Klingenmuseum (German Blades Museum) in Solingen. And in 2008, the Bauhaus-Archiv Museum für Gestaltung in Berlin showed the exhibition “Peter Raacke: simply modern – from craft to design”.
The mono-a cutlery was a revolution in its time
Raacke’s legendary “mono-a” cutlery was a revolution on the dining table in its day. With its stretched straight lines, with precise edges and circular curves, it appeared as simple as it was modern and unusual. Nevertheless, it was able to establish itself on the international markets and is still produced in numerous variations today. Jörg Petruschat suspects a connection to Scandinavian design, but rightly states that Raacke also took pleasure in a “lifestyle that centred on the search for a pleasure that was not directed towards the possession of things, but towards the experience, the pleasure and joy of life – which included the exploration of lifestyles, self-dramatisation, access to refinement and the art of living”.
A suitcase not only for DIYers
Among Raacke’s designs that have made design history is his plastic case. It is not a travel utensil, but a wallpapering case for do-it-yourselfers. The injection-moulded polypropylene shell forms the concise large shape, the “film hinge” sets the decisive accent. “Contrary to all everyday experience,” says Walter Scheiffele, “the thin plastic hinge can be moved endlessly without tearing off, thanks to the ‘miracle world of plastics’. In fact, the hinge is merely the ‘cross-sectional constriction’ of the polypropylene from which the case is moulded.” It is the details that make the difference: the handle, the fine profiling of the edges of the shell, the nickel-plated push buttons, the grain of the surface.
The fact that even such an accomplished designer and cosmopolitan balancing artist as Peter Raacke was not always able to balance the temporal equilibrium between design and success can be seen not only in the cardboard furniture, which was clearly ahead of its time, but also in the plastic suitcase, which in its red version also became the suitcase for “revolutionaries” at the end of the sixties. Because do-it-yourselfers preferred to use plastic bags at the DIY store, the case only became popular when Raacke offered it as a universally usable “empty case”.
As his family has announced, Peter Raacke died in Berlin on 20 March at the age of 93. The things he designed may remain, his philanthropic liveliness will be missed.
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